Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Work of Love Is Revenge: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’

Considering Alfred Hitchcock’s early movie The Lodger in light of his complete oeuvre—a task that can happen only anachronistically—gives us the old master minus two elements that furnished his films with the trappings of modernity amid an otherworldliness: color and sound. Where scores and palettes might have made reliable signposts, into this silent black-and-white film step in cinematography, action, tone, and shadow, drawing up a London that has more affinities with the cramped darkness of the theater than any brick-and-mortar city. Forced to eschew  [musical?] crescendos—then a fact of the format, but an active exclusion in later films like The …Continue reading

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Her Charming Passion: Wendy Lesser’s ‘Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books’

I was a bit suspicious as I approached Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 212 pages). It’s not that Ms. Lesser—founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, author of nine previous books (including one novel, The Pagoda in the Garden), and a prolific literary critic herself—lacks the credentials to write a long, meditative study of the passion she has made her career. (Quite the contrary; I can imagine few more qualified than her.) Rather, I was worried that, by virtue of her position vis-a-vis books and the Professional Writing Life, such a …Continue reading

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The Wondrous Re-Imagining of a Japanese Folktale: Patrick Ness’s ‘The Crane Wife’

In the Japanese folktale Tsuru no Ongaeshi, upon which Patrick Ness’s wondrous new novel, The Crane Wife, is loosely based, a young rice farmer rescues a beautiful white crane that has crashed into his rice paddy. The crane’s fall is caused by an arrow still jutting from its wing; the farmer carefully extracts the arrow and bids the crane take care as it flies away. When he returns to his house, the farmer is shocked to find a young woman waiting for him there. She tells him she has come to be his wife and ignores his protestations of poverty. …Continue reading

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Living With Others and the Earth: ‘Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford’

“Ask me whether / what I’ve done is my life,” writes William Stafford in the title poem of the recently released Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems (Graywolf Press; 128 pages). Published a century after his birth and twenty-one years after his death, the new collection includes 100 of Stafford’s “essential poems,” anthologized and introduced by his son, Kim. These poems repeatedly pose questions of individual and collective identity, challenging those false equivalences between our behaviors and our selves, and positing alternative relationships between the personal and political, the poetic and the vernacular. Ask Me suggests that Stafford’s life is larger …Continue reading

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Recognizing the Cadences: Alexander Maksik’s ‘A Marker to Measure Drift’

Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift  (Knopf; 222 pages), boldly repudiates the old chestnut that a writer must write what he or she knows. Jacqueline, Maksik’s protagonist, is a young woman from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Liberia— and now a refugee who has fled to the Greek islands in the aftermath of Liberia’s second civil war. As an undocumented immigrant, Jacqueline ekes out a painful existence on Santorini’s tourist-filled beaches. The novel’s opening thrusts us directly into Jacqueline’s narrowed existence—there is no backstory granted us (yet), only the immediacy of Jacqueline’s hunger …Continue reading

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The Remnants of the Dead Stir Minor Resurrections: Emilia Philips’ ‘Signaletics’

“Don’t ask where the teeth are / you exchanged for coins as a child,” advises Emilia Phillips in the opening poem of Signaletics, her first full-length poetry collection (University of Akron Press, 72 pages). But Phillips goes on to do exactly that: to root out the relics of childhood, and to recover systematically the physical residues of the estranged and the deceased. While the poems of Signaletics vary stylistically from dense prose sequences to neat series of couplets or tercets (including a sonnet), all address the material narratives we inscribe on our surroundings—with our fingerprints and possessions, lipstick stains and …Continue reading

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Reminders About What Was Fine (and Forgettable) About Norman Mailer

There’s a great moment in Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners’’ album in which Reed, after taking aim at the rock critic Establishment of the day, decides to go after the literary elite, too. “I met (Norman) Mailer at a party, and he tries to punch me in the stomach to show me he’s a tough guy,” Reed riffs. “The guy’s pathetic, you know. I said, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to be kidding. Go write a Bible.’ ” Well, Mailer tried. The publication of two new books on Mailer’s life and legacy serves as a reminder of how far we’ve …Continue reading

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Taking a Necessary Polar Plunge: Katy Didden’s ‘The Glacier’s Wake’

Katy Didden’s first book of poetry, The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press; 74 pages), is a densely packed, lyric collection by a scientifically minded poet. “You’re the kind who stands still / in front of awful things and squints / as though you could see into / the god chambers of every atom in every / drop of water,” writes Didden in “Pleasure Milker.” It’s one of the opening poems in the collection (which won the Lena-Miles Weaver Todd Poetry Prize) and a useful primer to Didden’s poetic mode. At her best, Didden’s poetic voice relates to the reader as a …Continue reading

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